A few weeks ago, on December 13th, I joined the Millions March in New York City. Tens of thousands of people from all races and backgrounds came out. Sure, it was sparked by two singular incidents, but there seemed to be a general understanding that the two incidents were symptoms of much larger, more entrenched issues. We marched through the streets and everywhere we went people stuck in traffic beeped their horns to our rhythm or stuck their hands out their windows to give us high fives or cheer us on. The sparks were tragic events but the day felt incredibly hopeful. How different the atmosphere is today.
There were rumblings from the NYPD before the two officers were assassinated while sitting in their cars on December 20th but that is the day the floodgates opened. That night, the head of the largest police union told the media that protesters were responsible for the deaths of the two police officers, that the peaceful protests had encouraged a killer. When the mayor, who had been mildly supportive of the protests, went to the hospital, the police literally turned their backs on him. Many people who had supported the protests went quiet, while others who had quietly opposed them became very loud.
In the days since it has only gotten worse, and from both sides. The protests that stood for police accountability; that pointed out the militarization of the police; that questioned large systematic biases; lost control of the narrative. People like the police union president and other right-wing political hacks started calling the protests ‘anti-police’ and it started to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The internet is not always a good metric for public sentiment because it seems that assholes yell loudest there. Still, much of what I see on social media from friends in New York or around the USA disturbs me. Yesterday a friend posted that someone had entered her restaurant wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” tee shirt and the string of comments that followed was horrifying. People said things such as “He doesn’t deserve to breathe,” or “Tell him, I’ll make that statement correct.” People are now threatening to kill someone for wearing a shirt associated with a non-violent protest movement. On the other side there are agitators as well, proclaiming every single police officer is bad and worthy of our wrath.
That unity I saw has been replaced with Black versus White; Police versus Protester; Us versus Them. This doesn’t mean that it will remain as such, but it does mean New York is a less hopeful place than it was just a few weeks ago.